Sylvia Robinson (March 6, 1936 – September 29, 2011) was an American singer, musician, record producer, and record label executive, most notably known for her work as founder/CEO of the hip hop label, Sugar Hill Records in Harlem. Often called the “mother of hip-hop,” she is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the genre. The first was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, which was the first rap song to be released by a hip hop act. The second was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.
She was born as Sylvia Vanterpool in 1936 on 138th Street (between 5th Ave and Lenox) in Harlem, New York. Her first successful record was the 1956 hit, “Love Is Strange”, written by Bo Diddley (but credited to his then wife, Ethel Smith) and guitarist Jody Williams, who had developed the distinctive lead guitar riff, and released as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia with guitar player Mickey Baker.
She married Joe Robinson in 1964 and continued working in the music industry, being involved with several more successful releases and forming the successful All Platinum Records label in 1968, which released records for soul artists such as Donnie Elbert and Shirley Goodman (e.g. “Shame, Shame, Shame”, credited to Shirley & Company), the Moments and Linda Jones, among many others. She is also credited as the producer of the song “Love on a Two Way Street”, a hit for the Moments in 1970.
As a solo performer and billed as Sylvia (not to be confused with the country singer of the same name) she recorded and released the single “Pillow Talk” on the Vibration label in 1973. She had originally hoped “Pillow Talk” would be recorded by Al Green, but he turned it down, because it was too risqué and against his religious beliefs. The drums on the recorded version seem to have been influenced by the productions of Willie Mitchell for Green.
“Pillow Talk” reached number one for two weeks on the R&B chart and number three on the pop chart, and is an early example of prototypical disco music. It sold over two million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May 1973. The vocals are replete with moaning and heavy breathing, predating Donna Summer’s orgasmic moans on “Love to Love You Baby”. The drumming rhythm would reappear in 1985 on Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”, then again in 1987 on Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love”.
In the 1970s, the Robinsons, along with Milton Malden, founded Sugar Hill Records. The company was named after the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, known as a hub for artists and performers in the early and mid 1900s.
She was a guiding force behind Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s most successful single, “The Message” (with parts of the video shot in Harlem on 116th Street), which is credited as the rap song that brought socially conscious lyrics into hip hop. She persuaded the group to record the song while it was still an estranged demo recording, surprisingly created by a studio percussionist for the Sugar Hill Gang. By commercializing the market for rap records, Robinson is credited as the mother of modern hip-hop.
The song “Rapper’s Delight” brought rap into the public music arena, and revolutionized the music industry as it introduced the idea of re-using existing compositions, a practice that later became known as “sampling”.
Robinson died on the morning of September 29, 2011, aged 75, at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey from congestive heart failure.